Remembering Professor Wilfred Beckerman
20 April 2020
We are deeply saddened to announce the passing of professor Wilfred Beckerman. He is remembered by the UCL community as a “fantastic economist”, “a terrific person and a brilliant mind” and “a great teacher whom students loved, both for his intellectual rigour and for the sparkle that he brought to his teaching”. Besides his outstanding academic achievements, Professor Beckerman made important contributions to post-War economic policymaking in the UK and Europe, serving as a Member of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution; OECD’s Head of Division; and Economic Advisor to the President of the British Board of Trade. He had the rare and precious gift of being a brilliant economist, an active policy advisor and an inspiring teacher at the same time.
Professor Beckerman made lasting contributions to the fields of environmental economics, ethics in applied economics and poverty studies. Some of his books include: “Economics as applied ethics: Value judgements in welfare economics”; “Economic development and the environment: Conflict or complementarity?”; “Poverty and Social Security in Britain since 1961”; and “Justice, Posterity and the Environment”.
Wilfred Beckerman was born in May 1925, served in the Royal Navy during the WWII, and after demobilisation studied at Cambridge University, where he completing his PhD in 1950. Like a number of economists of his generation his distinguished academic career was interspersed with equally-influential periods as an economic adviser in government. During much of the 1950s he was at the OECD in Paris (initially at its precursor, the OEEC), as an Economic Adviser and subsequently Head of Division. It was here that he developed his interests in the theoretical and ethical underpinnings of economic concepts and measurements of living standards and welfare. This was then followed by a period as a researcher at what was then the UK's pre-eminent economic policy research institute, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research. After three years as Fellow of Balliol College Oxford he was appointed Economic Advisor to the President of the Board of Trade in 1967, a post which placed him at the heart of the economic policy controversies and innovations of the Wilson government, and which, later, provided the basis for his influential book on the Labour Government's Economic Record.
On leaving government service in 1969 he was appointed Professor of Political Economy and Head of the Department of Political Economy (now the Department of Economics) at University College London, a post which he held until 1975. In 1975 he returned to Oxford as, again, Fellow of Balliol College, until mandatory retirement at age 67 in 1992.
Afterwards, he resumed his involvement with UCL. The then-head of department Professor David Pearce had initiated what was Europe's first MSc programme dedicated to Environmental and Resource Economics in 1989-90, and invited Wilfred to contribute a course option on Environmental Economics and Ethics, which he co-taught with his wife, the philosopher Joanna Pasek. The couple also introduced a unique undergraduate course on ethics of economics, where it was thought as a dialogue between a philosopher and an economist. Both of these modules were among the most popular and intellectually stimulating modules ever taught in UCL economics.